FCC Plans to End NFL TV Blackout Rules

The commission will vote later this month to lift the rules despite objections from the NFL.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission wants to make sure NFL fans can watch their favorite teams on TV this season.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced Tuesday that he plans to scrap his agency's rules that support TV blackouts of live sports events.

"Today, we are blowing the whistle on this anti-fan practice," Wheeler wrote in an op-ed in USA Today. "The NFL should no longer be able to hide behind government rules that punish loyal fans."

Wheeler shared his proposal with the four other FCC commissioners on Tuesday and has scheduled a final vote on the issue for Sept. 30. Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the commission, has also called for an end to the blackout rules.

The rules, first adopted in 1975, prohibit cable and satellite TV providers from showing a sports event in an area if the game is blacked out on broadcast television stations such as Fox or CBS.

Dropping the rules would have the biggest impact on the NFL, which requires broadcast stations to black out games if the local team does not sell out the stadium.

The NFL argues that the rules are necessary to keep games on local broadcast channels, which are free to access over the air. The league also says the rules boost local economies by ensuring that more fans attend the game in person.

But in his op-ed, Wheeler argued that the blackouts just allow wealthy team owners to squeeze extra money out of loyal fans. The NFL pulls in billions of dollars every year and doesn't need the government's help anymore, Wheeler wrote.

"To hear the NFL describe it, you would think that putting a game on CBS, NBC, or Fox was a money-losing proposition instead of a highly profitable multibillion-dollar business," Wheeler wrote. "If the league truly has the best interest of millions of American fans at heart, they could simply commit to staying on network television in perpetuity."

The FCC chairman said it was particularly "egregious" that a playoff game in Green Bay, Wis., was nearly blacked out last season when the weather forecast predicted a low of minus-15 degrees. The NFL was forcing fans to buy expensive tickets and freeze, or risk having the whole community lose access to the game on TV, Wheeler wrote.

Lynn Swann, a Hall of Fame receiver who is working as a spokesman for the NFL on the issue, pointed to the thousands of fans who have signed the league's petition to preserve the rules.

"Fans know and appreciate that the NFL is unique among major professional sports leagues in making available every game— both regular season and playoffs— on free, over-the-air television," Swann said in a statement. "They do not want the FCC to needlessly make a rule change— based on theory and speculation— that jeopardizes their ability to follow football on free TV."

—This article has been updated with a response from the NFL